The apostle Paul, the God-pleaser

[Sermon audio here.]

So, how might this knock-off version of the gospel look today in a church that is no longer entangled by the Jewish ceremonial law?  Well, if we understand that man-made religion is in essence anything that replaces or adds to the free grace of God that has come in Christ, then the possibilities are endless…  A fake gospel can be insisting on rules that go against God’s Word, like forbidding marriage.  Salvation is Jesus plus abstaining from the so-called evil of sexual intercourse in marriage.  A fraudulent gospel can be insisting on things not specifically commanded in Scripture, but nevertheless still good or beneficial.  Things like Jesus plus eating a low-carb diet.  Or Jesus plus moderating your time on social-media.  A knock-off gospel can also be the more spiritual insistence on Jesus plus commands expressly found in Scripture.  It could be Jesus plus your hit-count for personal evangelism.  Or Jesus plus your private reading of Scripture.  Or Jesus plus your loving your neighbour by alleviating their poverty… and the list goes on and on.

For the entire sermon from Galatians 1:1-10, see below:

Peer group pressure is a universal phenomenon.  We can all relate to the temptation to follow the crowd instead of standing by our convictions.  It is easier to back the bully in the playground than stand up for the kid with thick glasses.  It is more attractive to embrace the Hollywood view of sexual expression than honour marriage.  It is more tantalizing to gossip than respect someone’s private life.  It is easier to be politically correct than to affirm true virtue.  It is easier to say that all roads lead to God than stand by the exclusivity of Christianity.  It is easier to follow the latest popular Christian teaching than abide by the Word of God.

The Apostle Paul was someone who stood against popular opinion in his day on the basis of God’s Word.  He was more concerned with pleasing God than gaining the approval of men.  In his letter to the Galatians, he addresses the problem of peer group pressure coming from false teachers in the church, otherwise known as Judaizers.  These were self-appointed preachers who were influencing the Galatian Christians into believing a different gospel from the one that Paul had initially preached to them.  They had rejected the authority of Paul and his gospel message.  Instead, they were teaching a gospel shaped after their own wisdom and imagination.  And it went something like this: in order to be justified and become part of the church one must have faith in Jesus plus obedience to various laws or rules.

What I would like to do this morning is focus on Paul’s bold stand for God against the false teachers, which climaxes in verse 10 of our passage.  I’d like to look at two things that compelled Paul to take his stand on service to Christ.  The first is that Paul knew he had a God-given calling as an apostle to preach the gospel.  Second, God had convinced Paul that the content of his preaching must be the gospel of free grace if sinners are to be saved from their sins.

This morning, God calls you and I to take a stand as well.  Will we go along with an impressively packaged false gospel that the masses are following in the name of Christianity, in order to fit in?  Or will we trust in and give witness to the one true gospel of Christ?

    Paul’s Apostolic calling

In the opening verses of the book of Galatians, Paul greets the various churches with a defence of his God-given calling as an apostle.  Why?  Because the gossip circulating in the churches at the time is that for various reasons Paul apparently did not have authority to speak on behalf of God.  As a result, his version of the gospel was being called into question.  Paul wasn’t making many friends because his understanding of God’s saving grace made him unwilling to follow all of the “gospel-add-on” rituals and customs coming out of the mother church in Jerusalem.  It also did not help that he was not the most impressive personality or public speaker, or very good-looking for that matter either.

The NT teaches that to be an apostle is a special calling from God.  Like the other apostles, God had commissioned Paul for a unique task during a unique time to establish Christ’s church.  In Acts 9, we learn that the course of Paul’s life was dramatically altered in an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus on the Road to Damascus.  There, God turned him from a persecutor of the church into a preacher of Christ’s grace.  Afterwards, Paul joined the other apostles in taking up the special and unrepeatable task of laying the foundation for the NT church.

What I want to draw attention to in these opening verses is Paul’s statement that his apostolic calling rests upon God and not man.  Paul is emphatic that his position of authority in the church did not ultimately come to pass by the popular vote of the people.  He did not qualify as an apostle because of his personality or his oratory.  Paul did not manipulate his way into a position of power with his entrepreneurial savvy or personal magnetism.  No, God made Paul an apostle and a preacher.  This realisation of Paul’s is important to our understanding of his words in verse 10.  Paul is constrained to honour the One who has commissioned him, which is nothing other than the God of the universe!  Paul knows he is taking directions from the all-powerful and all-knowing God, not fallible sinners.  Because Paul is gripped by God’s calling, he could care less about the approval of man.

Paul’s apostolic message

In verses 3-5, Paul exercises his office as God’s ambassador by introducing his letter to the Galatians with a blessing: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.”  Here is a summary of what Paul’s apostleship is all about: the revelation of the gospel of salvation from sin.

Do you see the connection here?  Paul’s calling as an apostle is inseparable from the message God had summoned him to preach.  Therefore, Paul has authority as an apostle not only because he has a divine calling, but also because he proclaims the same message that Jesus preached and accomplished in his own flesh during his earthly ministry.  In fact, Paul would have no calling from God if there were no gospel to preach.  In other words, Paul’s ministry depends upon and draws authority from the preaching and the crucifixion of Jesus.

Consider for a moment the ultimate importance and authority of the Paul’s message relative to salvation, when he declares in verse 4: Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.”  To be forgiven is to know that God the Father judged Jesus instead of us for our sin.  This means we are free from this world contaminated by sin and headed for destruction.  God has delivered us out of this world of sin and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places, which is the age to come (cf. Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1-5).

    A false gospel taught by self-appointed preachers

This is the gospel foundation that Paul has been laying under the feet of the Galatians church during his ministry.  He is convinced of its truth and its power to save sinners.  It is little wonder, then, why Paul is so “astonished,” verse 6, that so many are “quickly deserting” God who has called them “in the grace of Christ” and are “turning to a different gospel” – as if there is one!

Paul knows that the problem is those false teachers who “want to distort the gospel of Christ” (verse 7).

The Galatian Christian’s should have known better than to listen to the Judaizers.  They should have known that these false teachers are in fact self-appointed frauds.  The false teachers had, nevertheless, persuaded the Galatians into believing that they were speaking on behalf of God.  They used the God-talk.  They were slick and charming.  They had an impressive outward show of holiness.  And besides, the masses were following them, so Paul’s opponents must be from God – right?  Wrong!

Think about it, things are not that different today – aren’t they?  Is it not perhaps true that often the “preachers” with the biggest followings have neither been ordained by a true church (cf. Belgic 29) nor teach the true gospel of Christ?  Think televangelists and mega-church leaders – especially those in the health, wealth and prosperity tradition.  The sad thing is that these self-appointed leaders lead people away from Jesus, the only source of eternal life.  Maybe you are one them and are just now finding your way again.

So, how should the church respond to such preachers and their false teaching?  Well, in verse 8, Paul reigns down nothing short of a curse upon anyone who twists God’s gospel truth.  Whether it be Paul himself or “an angel from heaven,” Paul says: “let him be accursed.”  Yes, Paul is full of judgment here.  Why?  Because he cannot overlook any teaching that would overturn the freedom of God’s grace towards sinners.

The distressing thing for Paul about many of the Galatian Christians is that they have not picked up on the fact that those they are listening to are getting the gospel dead wrong!  If they had realised this, they would have seen that these Jewish teachers are indeed false; that they are not from God.  And they would have stopped listening to their lies about Jesus.  But evidently the false version of gospel that was circulating was subtle enough to tempt and confuse true Christians, even the Apostle Peter himself (Gal. 2)!

So, what is it exactly that was so twisted about this fake gospel?  Basically, the message of the false teachers is that justification – being right with God – requires some measure of human obedience.  This is not to say that they did not believe in Jesus.  Their error was subtle and therefore all the more dangerous.  For the false teachers, like the Pharisees during Jesus’ earthly ministry, the blood of Jesus was not enough to ensure forgiveness of sins.  Therefore, they were insisting upon obedience to ceremonial laws found in the OT, especially the rite of circumcision.  Their formula was Jesus plus obedience to the law equals justification before God.  At the end of the day, their spiritual recipe is no different from man-made religion.

Now, you may be wondering what is so wrong with obedience to God’s law in the OT?  The problem with OT ceremonial laws, such as circumcision and ritual sacrifice, is that they served a purpose for a limited time.  They were supposed to point forward to coming Messiah.  When Jesus did finally arrive, he fulfilled all of the OT laws: not only the ceremonial laws, but the judicial and moral laws as well.  He provided the final cleansing from sin symbolized in circumcision by being cut off by God in bloody judgment at the cross.  Therefore, for the false teachers to require something like circumcision for salvation is to in effect deny the atoning death of Jesus.  In essence, their teaching was no different from any man-made religion, and therefore any self-help book or moral reformation program, which may produce results on earth but not in heaven!

So, how might this knock-off version of the gospel look today in a church that is no longer entangled by the Jewish ceremonial law?  Well, if we understand that man-made religion is in essence anything that replaces or adds to the free grace of God that has come in Christ, then the possibilities are endless…  A fake gospel can be insisting on rules that go against God’s Word, like forbidding marriage.  Salvation is Jesus plus abstaining from the so-called evil of sexual intercourse in marriage.  A fraudulent gospel can be insisting on things not specifically commanded in Scripture, but nevertheless still good or beneficial.  Things like Jesus plus eating a low-carb diet.  Or Jesus plus moderating your time on social-media.  A knock-off gospel can also be the more spiritual insistence on Jesus plus commands expressly found in Scripture.  It could be Jesus plus your hit-count for personal evangelism.  Or Jesus plus your private reading of Scripture.  Or Jesus plus your loving your neighbour by alleviating their poverty… and the list goes on and on.

    Paul’s stand against the world

Now do you see more clearly what is motivating Paul’s outrage here?  Do you see why the harsh language?  Why the defensiveness? Why the boldness?  Why the insistence on not going with the flow?  The church in Galatia is in danger of exchanging God’s free grace for human effort, which is man-made religion!  They are flirting with the death-sentence of do-it-yourself religiosity!

Yes, the rules and the traditions and the spirituality of sinful man may motivate us.  They may make us feel good.  And they may gain the greatest following in the church today.  But Jesus plus the law – no matter how it is marketed and sold – is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And therefore it must not be tolerated!  This is why Paul has no problem lambasting and offending the false teachers as well as those Galatian Christians who are buying into their lies.

Brothers and sisters, and children, Paul’s words in verse 10 only make sense in light of his defense of his apostolic calling and his defense of the gospel of free grace in Christ.  In this final verse of our passage, Paul declares that he is no man-pleaser because the cost of being one is too high: for himself, for the church and for you and I today.  Paul would rather please God by being a servant of Christ than win the approval of man – because the salvation of sinners is at stake!  If Paul would forsake his apostolic calling and preaching, then the gospel of grace would be replaced with a man-made message of slavery to sin that ultimately leads to eternal damnation.  This is why he stands firm even in the face of the most vicious peer group pressure.  This is why Paul is unwilling to give an inch to the pressure to compromise God’s Word, especially the all-important doctrine of justification by faith alone through God’s grace alone.

Beloved, Paul’s words to the Galatian churches are also God’s Words to us today.  Like the Galatians, we too are sinners tempted by the allure of false teaching.  Yes, sadly we too have to watch out for false teachers in our churches.

But most importantly, while we don’t have apostles anymore, God has nevertheless given us ministers who preach Christ’s gospel with no less power through God’s Spirit.

Like the Galatian Christians, we too must pay attention to Paul’s words here.  We must not be drawn away by false teaching that denies God’s grace – even if it comes from the mouth of an angel!  Rather, we must accept and follow those preachers who have been given authority from God, which means they are ordained by a true church.  This means we must seek out and listen to those ordained preachers that faithfully proclaim the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

Each one of us needs to be under preaching that gets the gospel right.  We need to be part of a church that safeguards the gospel through faithful governance and discipline.  In other words, we need to exercise wisdom and discernment what we believe and why we believe it.  In our witness to the gospel in our everyday lives, we need to stand strong for the truth, even if it means that we lose the approval of men.  Why?  Because the salvation of sinners is at stake, which is only possible by God’s grace alone in Christ alone by faith alone.  Amen.

 

Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, 4 August 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s